Friday, August 22, 2008

The Death of Beowulf

*deep sigh* Well, I finished Beowulf again, read the translation my uncle so generously sent me--thank you again--Seamus Heaney's words, richly illustrated with photographs of the very swords and helmets and byrnies and gold torques so vividly portrayed in the epic. No matter how many times I read this story, I'll always be left feeling as though I've been stabbed by the dagger of Grendel's mother right in the chest. Beowulf, generous king, brave hero, a man who lived life boldly and well, who won fame for his name, his death is noble and poignant, and his storyteller is masterful at wrenching our hearts. Here are a few selections in Heaney's version to illustrate.

[Beowulf's last words, spoken to young Wiglaf, the only one of his retinue to stand with him against the dragon that killed Beowulf.]

"You are the last of us, the only one left
of the Waegmundings. Fate swept us away,
sent my whole brave high-born clan
to their final doom. Now I must follow them."

[A portion of the messenger's report of Beowulf's death]

"...................His royal pyre
will melt no small amount of gold:
heaped there in a hoard, it was bought at heavy cost,
and that pile of rings he paid for at the end
with his own life will go up with the flame,
be furled in fire: treasure no follower
will wear in his memory, nor lovely woman
link and attach as a torque around her neck--
but often, repeatedly, in the path of exile
they shall walk bereft, bowed under woe,
now that their leader's laugh is silenced,
high spirits quenched."

[Beowulf's funeral]

The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
stacked and decked it until it stood four-square,
hung with helmets, heavy war-shields
and shining armour, just as he had ordered.
Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
mourning a lord far-famed and beloved.
On a height they kindled the hugest of all
funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
and drowned out their weeping, wind died down
and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
and wailed aloud for their lord's decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

[The last lament of Beowulf's people.]

So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

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